I was watching a panel with some cool people when I realized I hadn’t actually read (or watched) the Martian. I vaguely recall buying it, but never sat down and read it. So I turned to my local library, realized it was closed, so I bought a new copy of the book online. I read it in one day, which is more a testament to how bored I am, rather than how good it was.
I think the Martian was… fine? I can’t point to anything and say “That ruined it for me.” I also can’t point to anything and say “That was awesome.” It just was. It was good enough that I’d give the author the benefit of the doubt and read another book of his, but I have and Artemis didn’t do much for me.
I think there are two big things hampering my enjoyment of this book. The second I’ll talk about WAY later in this write up, but the first is that I’m too lawful. There were a lot of characters that made decisions that I didn’t agree with. People breaking regulations all over. Now, I understand the premise of the guy stranded on Mars having to make judgements on his own, but there were a lot of other people in the story making what I would call a bad and unlawful, decision.
Now, this might say a lot about me. Maybe it says something about my willingness to take risks. Or how I value human life. So those are interesting questions I get to ask about myself. I don’t have great answers for them.
One of the benefits to humanity that books like this provide is the bringing up of certain questions. I mentioned that people were breaching protocol in the new situations postulated in this book. But I guarantee that decision makers have now actually asked these questions IRL, and have answers and protocol prepared, so people won’t panic and act with emotion over logic.
Weir has a beautiful phrase that he has a character use to describe the inciting incident of the book, “a failure of imagination.” Essentially, the characters couldn’t imagine the events occurring, so they couldn’t prepare for it. Now, though, we humans have thought of it. It would not surprise me if there was a team as part of NASA’s Mars missions that thinks about these problems. Even if they decide to change nothing, the fact that brainy people thought about whether they were worth fixing prepares us better for future space missions. For a example of what they may have done, with how cheap data storage is these days, I imagine information and drivers for the old Martian rovers, as well as much more entertainment media than is needed, will be included on any future mission to Mars.
Things I noticed
A lot of time passed in this story. Something like 2 years? I can’t wrap my head around it. I mean, I’m not a focused person and the idea that someone can say “Okay, I have 100 days before I need to make a 3 month journey and I need to have everything prepared is absolutely foreign to me. I didn’t parse the time passing very well, and I think that’s a good thing to take away. How do you make people grok time passing? I’m not going to talk about D&D yet (though it is coming), but the passage of time is a very useful thing to be aware of. As a GM. Players don’t need to know how time passes. It just does. I do think my chunk system for hexcrawls makes time more approachable, by cutting it into very discrete chunks, but that can’t be the solution for everything, right?
I watch a lot of ASMR and one of the artists I’m into ATM is Uying. I like her roleplays, but one of the things that irks me a tad is that when her characters need to leave for a bit and come back, there is no real pause. Sometimes, there is quick transition, but often, she just waits for a second and begins the new segment with time supposedly having passed. I don’t know what the appropriate length of time you would leave someone sitting, but I think a bit more… breathing space, I guess, would improve that. Other ASMR artists will walk off camera and back, which is a bit better. idk.
So much time passed in this book, and I had no way to really feel that.
Concerning the resolution of the book. I felt a bit cheated. I don’t know how much that opinion is valid, though. The book ends with Watney being safely on the ship and headed home. Which is all the book promised, really. I had hoped Watney would get home, do some tours, meet some girls now that he’s famous. I’d also love to see the other people, what happens to the crew, what happens to future Mars missions, what happens to the NASA people who had to make tough decisions, so many questions and I didn’t have enough question marks for them.
Now, this could have been an artistic choice. If you were writing a sequel, this would be an ideal strategy, as you don’t want to tip your hand. A character doing a TV interview is an AMAZING way to drop exposition and explain what happened in the previous book, as well as set up important bits for Book 2’s plot. If you knew exactly what your Book 2 was when writing Book 1, you could do it, but you would have to be a very brave author.
Of course, that’s not what Weir was doing, and we know this, because he’s told us. He never intended for this to be a book that entertained people. He started making money off of it accidentally. The Martian was written as a sort of thought experiment. “If someone was stranded on Mars, how would they survive?” He would set up the world, and do the math and figure out what supplies could resolve problems, then figure out new problems that would arise. Problems lead directly into other problems. For example, I’m fairly sure Watney loses contact with Earth for one reason: So he can’t get the weather report and needs to solve that problem himself. Well, the weather and the navigation. If he had the radio, he could get all sorts of updates instead of having to reinvent longitude and latitude.
This is because of the Dramatic Question The Martian is asking is “How does he survive?” Not “Will he survive?” or even “Will he get back to Earth?” but “How.” The book ends after the answer has been reached, which, to be fair, is all it promised. I said that earlier. The problem is, the question of “How” doesn’t interest me, because I know the answer is “however the writer wishes him to solve the problem.” This is sort of a… fatalistic? view of writing. Let’s take a brief trip into a tangent.
I recently subscribed to DC Universe, so I have a bunch of media available to me. I’ve been reading old, old Superman comics. It’s really interesting reading, and I might do a more complete CQ article about it later, but it’s in this weird place where they haven’t entirely figured out how Superman, and maybe even comics work yet. And so, Superman is ALWAYS where he needs to be, and is ALWAYS able to accomplish the task. And if that means he suddenly needs to be able to see through walls, then so be it (Action Comics #11). Or if he needs to be able to do mental hypnosis to break Lois out of a catatonic state (Action Comics #32).
You never thought those would have citations, did ya?
Reading Superman comics meant that when I read the Martian and the plot added something dangerous, I fully expected the problem to suddenly be solved by the characters involved. And when it did, I didn’t praise the author or the character for such a clever solution, I just turned the page.
Now, going way back to the things that hamper my enjoyment, I think it’s important to note a difference between me and the majority of people that I hear who praise this book: I am not an engineer. I don’t think of myself like one, and I don’t think like one. So without performing science to verify this, I hazard that engineers who read the scene with Watney in an airlock with a broken suit start thinking “Okay, if I was in this situation, what would I do? Do I have tape? A patch kit? Where do I need to go to have the best chance of survival?” Engineers become engaged with the scene in a way I can’t and when the author presents the solution, Engineers nod their approval.
That’s how I imagine it, at least. If you’re an engineer, feel free to chime in and I’ll add in your reaction.
I’m told the movie has an actual ending. So maybe they fix my issue here? Idk. I’ll have to watch it and see. I asked my parents if they had a copy of the film. My mom said “No, it wasn’t that good.” while my dad, with his masters in Electrical Engineering said “I thought it was good..”
So that’s a data point.
How does this apply to D&D?
My favorite question. And it’s an interesting one here, as the first response is:
The Martian as a Solo Campaign
I can imagine Weir running a solo campaign, where he’s doing the math for how far his character needs to go, how much weight and supplies he can take in the rover, testing mechanics and calculating food yields. I can also imagine myself, running a game where my PC explores uncharted territory, fights monsters, and builds power, all without interaction from other people.
Solo games don’t get talked about much. I wonder if that’s a market I can expand into…
Allowing players to be good.
One of the recurring “What great luck!” parts of the Martian is the Watney was the Biologist and the Engineer of the mission. There may have been doubling up of roles, and maybe another character could have approached the problem from different angles or with less knowledge, but you know what, sometimes, it’s okay for one character to be put in the perfect position to deal with a problem.
There are a lot of ways to describe challenges, so let me add two more to the mix, Against the Grain, and With the Grain. Both are valid, but they should be used intentionally.
Against the Grain is a challenge that goes up against a character’s weakness. A character’s dump stat is what’s required to succeed. The barbarian might need to figure out the puzzle, the fighter might need to convince the prince to let his party go free, the wizard is trapped in the forest where he could easily deal with the challenges if he had a decent STR. And it’s not just a stat game. The paladin has to deceive, the warlock has to interact with people, the druid has to something something a city. The challenge goes Against the Grain of the characterization.
There are three good outcomes from Against the Grain challenges. First, failure is not a bad thing. One of the great lessons that people can learn about the world from D&D is that failure is not final, that it’s just the stepping stone to the next stage. So having encounters where failure is okay isn’t bad. There’s a lot of time in D&D when there are all sorts of pressures put on succeeding, and letting that pressure off and playing a scene for hilarious failure might be worth it.
Second, the character manages to find a way to grow out of this experience. It could be they learn something about themselves, the world, or someone else in the party that lets them overcome the challenge. Reward good roleplay with lower DCs. There’s a lot of superhero fiction that uses this type of AtG challenges
Third, the character reinvents the challenge to work it towards their advantage. Weak wizard needs to move a boulder? Instead of needing strength, we’ll use the magic of levers! Paladin needs to lie? Instead he accuses the vizier of wrongdoing, and since everyone knows the paladin doesn’t lie, the vizier now needs to defend himself. Reinvention was one of the key plots in Iron Man 3. Without his “powers” aka, suit and money and lab, how does Tony Stark save the day? (Oh, you want media references to the other two examples? The paladin is Aerich from the Phoenix Guards by Steven Brust, and the wizard is Kevyn from Schlock Mercenary in the storyline Sharp End of the Stick
“With the Grain” is a challenge that might not actually be a challenge. And that’s not a bad thing. When people design a character, they make choices. These choices mean things. People want their characters to matter and there’s no better way to reward a character for the choices they make then by giving them wins now and then. Nobody wants to play a game where they lose all the time. And while a hard fought victory feels good, it’s refreshing for a victory to be simple. So give the wizard a chance for their Arcane lore to shine (Doctor Who: Doomsday), let the barbarian be intimidating (Princess bride), let the paladin get filled with righteous wrath (Schlock Mercenary)
Now, I should point out that all of these stories have a thing in common: they are all dealing with a single character. We rarely get that in D&D, what with people being in parties and all. The point behind having a party is for people to be able to cover another’s weaknesses. So Against the Grain challenges are harder to utilize. There are sometimes things that the WHOLE party is bad at, but when a character is separated, it’s a good time to give them some solid spotlight. Just make sure you spread the spotlight around.
A Sci-fi RPG
I don’t have a lot to say about this, except I’ve started jonesing for a Sci-FI RPG. I’m going to have to go read some Starfinder, and Spelljammer, (also: Stars Without Number and decide what I want out of it (if you want to influence what I do for a SF game, throw your ideas at me!)
The Martian will never be one of my favorite books, but I’m glad I’ve read it. I keep thinking about it and referencing it, which tends to be a good indication of the lasting quality of a book.
(I wish the library was open, so I could get a copy of the movie.)
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